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Off to Wallacea with Bill Bailey!

Posted by George Beccaloni on Jul 27, 2012 2:10:44 PM

I am heading off to Wallacea on Sunday 29th July for three weeks to assist comedian Bill Bailey with a documentary he is presenting about - you guessed it - Alfred Russel Wallace. My wife Jan will also be on the trip. Her job is to make a video diary of our exploits and also take photos which can be used by the Museum for Wallace100-related events next year. Jan, by the way, is the Museum's Curator of Arachnida and Myriapoda i.e. she manages the national collection of pickled spiders, centipedes, scorpions and their relatives. It often amuses me to think that Jan and I work on some of the most feared and loathed groups of animals (cockroaches are my speciality) - we make a perfect couple!


Bill, who Jan and I have known for about four years, is very interested in natural history -birds in particular- and is a big fan of Wallace. He often goes to Southeast Asia on holiday and it was on one such trip, many years ago, that he read Wallace's book The Malay Archipelago and became captivated by its author.

Bill next to the Museum's excellent oil painting of Wallace (which can be seen on the DC2 Cocoon tour).
Photo by George Beccaloni. © Natural History Museum


Bill wants to tell the world about Wallace's amazing life and work, and in particular he wants to put the record straight - that the theory of evolution by natural selection wasn't conceived by Charles Darwin alone, but it was instead jointly published in August 1858 (fifteen months before Darwin's book On the Origin of Species) by Darwin AND Wallace.


So what is Wallacea I hear you ask? It is the heart of the region Wallace called the Malay Archipelago, and it includes the large weirdly-shaped island of Sulawesi, as well as Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Sumba, Timor, Halmahera, Buru, Seram, and many smaller islands - nearly all of which are part of Indonesia. Wallacea is named after Wallace and is a biogeographical transition zone between the Australian region to the east, and the Oriental region to the west. The mammals of the Australian region are mostly marsupials (e.g. kangeroos and wombats), whilst the Oriental region only has placental mammals (like tigers, elephants and rhinos). The islands in Wallacea contain a mix of Australian and Oriental animals. For more information see, the heart of Indonesia. Wallacea encompasses islands which never had dry land connections to the main land masses of either the Australian region or the Oriental region Consequently it has few animals which find it difficult to cross stretches of open ocean (e.g. land mammals, land birds, or freshwater fish of continental origin). [From Wikipedia]


During our three weeks in Wallacea we plan to visit three of the most important Wallace-realated places in the whole of the Malay Archipelago: Sulawesi, Halmahera and Ternate. It was on Sulawesi that Wallace received his first ever letter from Darwin, starting a chain of correspondence which would ultimately lead to his theory of natural selection being co-published with Darwin. The "earthquake-tortured island of Ternate", as Wallace charmingly called it, is the place from which he posted his famous 'Ternate paper', which detailed his theory of natural selection, to Darwin in 1858. Halmahera, which is a large island very close to the much smaller island of Ternate, is home to the most incredible of all the 5000 of so species of animals new to science which Wallace collected in the Malay Archipelago i.e. Wallace's standardwing bird of paradise, Wallace's golden birdwing butterfly and Wallace's giant bee. We are fairly likely to see the first, less likely to spot the second, and very unlikely to come apon the third.


Keep reading this blog to find out how we get on!



Wallace's standardwing bird of paradise (Semioptera wallacei) - male in front, female behind. Wallace regarded this species as his greatest zoological discovery. This illustration is from The Malay Archipelago.
© Wallace Memorial Fund

Ornithoptera croesus.jpg


A male of Wallace's golden birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera croesus). Wallace writes the following about his capture of this species in his book The Malay Archipelago: “The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.”
© Natural History Museum

Wallace's giant bee (Chalicodoma pluto) is the largest bee in the world. Females (like the one above) have huge jaws which they use to collect tree resin to line their nests, which they excavate in arboreal termite nests. For more information see
© Wallace Memorial Fund
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